Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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Well, this battle in Iowa is truly going down to the wire.

Today Zogby has a poll out with Dean 25%, Gephardt 23%, Kerry 14%, Edwards 13%. And Zogby says Edwards was picking up steam through the three days of interviews.

Those numbers are somewhat countered by two other polls out in the last two days which have the Dean/Gephardt spread at 7% (LA Times) and 5% (Quad-City Times/KWQC). But clearly it's pretty tight.

At various points over the three-plus years I've run this site I've commented on the quality of Zogby's polls (here's one of the first things I ever wrote about him, an article in Slate from almost four years ago). Zogby's polls do often pick up on trends well in advance of their appearance in other polls. But almost as frequently he seems to pick up on trends that turn out not to exist. So to the extent that you can personify methodology I see him as ingenious but erratic.

That's I suppose just a roundabout way of saying that I don't know quite what to make of his very tight margin between the two top contenders.

More generally, however, the closeness of these margins and the broader dynamics of this race, I think, tell us that we don't know what's going to happen on Caucus eve.

The Caucus system works by a sort of snowbound version of the uncertainty principle. The particulars are so detailed that I'm sure to get some part of it wrong. But basically how the caucuses work is that everyone shows up and they divide into groups based on candidate preference. But if your candidate has less than 15% of the attendees then your guy (or gal) is out.

(Presumably, at the beginning of the evening someone gets out an envelope, counts who's there and does some quick math to determine how many people get you over 15%. I'd be ruled out for that job.)

Once your candidate is out you have to pick another.

Now, the numbers we're seeing are statewide. And the demographic gap between, say, the Gephardt and Dean voters is great enough that in particular caucus locations the spread is apt to be very different. However, you don't have to look too long at the numbers to see that there are some candidates with not insubstantial support that are going to get knocked out on the first round at many locations.

To put it succinctly, in many caucuses, the issue is going to be less whether Gephardt and Dean are separated by 2% or 6% as who the Kerry and Edwards supporters go to on the second round.

Before you flame me with your emails, I'm not trying to prejudge Kerry's and Edwards' chances. But you can see the level of uncertainty that plays into the calculus.

On the face of it, it would seem this volatility would work against Dean since the race has been polarized between Dean as the outsider vs. anti-Dean Washington candidates. If you're for Kerry, who has made opposition to Dean an increasing focus of his campaign, do you switch to Dean or to Gephardt, if Kerry falls under 15% if your caucus? The latter seems more logical to me. But so many factors must play in to this that I'm not sure 'logic', especially from a thousand miles away, gets you very close to the truth.

Something a lot of us have been saying for a long time. This from Time's article on O'Neill ...

"The biggest difference between then and now," O'Neill tells Suskind about his two previous tours in Washington, "is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis, and Karl (Rove), Dick (Cheney), Karen (Hughes) and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics. It's a huge distinction."

Politics and ideology.

From an AP story running this evening ...

At the town hall meeting in Rochester, a woman asked Dean why he was complaining about his rivals' attacks, but distributing fliers against Clark. Dean said he wasn't aware of the fliers and the decision was made by local staff. But he said he would be happy to defend them.

"If the fliers said that General Clark was originally for the war and now is against it, that's accurate," Dean said. "If the fliers said that General Clark said it was perfectly fine to let our software jobs to got to India and replace them with other jobs, he did say that. There is a difference in attack ads and just pointing out the facts."

This point about the Iraq war is simply false. <$Ad$>I hesitate to call it a lie because I don't know if Dean knows it's false, though he should.

The falsity of the claim is well-known to anyone who closely followed the debate over Iraq in the lead-up to the war and particularly Clark's role in that debate.

There's a lot of foolishness being peddled to the effect that Clark is claiming he's an "anti-war" candidate when he's not. (This is the upshot of the flyers Dean campaign workers are distributing at Clark rallies.) This is a very loaded term. One can believe this whole enterprise was badly misconceived and handled even worse and not have that sentiment diminished by not singing folk songs.

And why doesn't Dean know his campaign workers are distributing these flyers? Everyone else has known for like a week.

There's a lot of attention right now, and rightly so, to former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's revelations about the president, his tax policies and Iraq. Getting particular attention is the claim that the Iraq war was in the cards in early 2001.

I don't think that's exactly right. I think the administration was closely divided (as it would be after 9/11) and the antis were having some success in putting the genie back in the bottle. 9/11 decisively changed the equation, allowing the war-hawks to control the day.

More broadly, though, of course this is true. This is getting a lot of attention and it should. But it is also an example of the common pattern by which open secrets only get discussed by the press once a prominent person states them publicly.

Along these lines too, I've never been one who believes that oil -- in a direct sense -- was a key cause of this war. (By 'direct sense' I mean, the desire to have direct financial control over oil reserves as opposed to a general recognition that stability and friendly states at the key supply points of the world's oil supplies is of vital concern to the US.) But big decisions like this always have a myriad of motivations behind them and multiple parentage. Explanations tend to be quite over-determined. But I hear more and more about what's in those Cheney energy task force records. Might be time to revisit that.

National Greatness Liberalism or perhaps One Nation Liberalism, the great hope. Here's a column by Jacob Hacker on the Op-Ed page of tomorrow's Times which points to some of the reforms which might be a part of it.

Allow me a few thoughts on this issue of the Democrats and the South.

Increasingly, some Democrats are saying that what the party needs is a ‘Northern strategy,’ one that gives up on the South and focuses on the North and West, the party’s regions of natural strength. I’m not without sympathy for this argument. In fact, I used to make it a lot myself, even proposing a few articles on the topic at the magazine I used to work for.

For instance, much was made about how Al Gore lost the election in West Virginia, long a bastion of Democratic party strength. But, for my money, if one has to pick one state, I always thought that he lost it more in New Hampshire --- a state which, given recent national trends, is a more logical state for Democrats to snatch away in a national election.

Now I have a lot of ideas about the South’s long historic tendency toward one-partyism, its deeply divided internal political and social dynamics which is the root of that tendency, and how the more socially liberal parts of the country have in recent decades developed a truly misguided sense of moral inferiority toward this region. One might also add my reverence for William T. Sherman.

But for the moment let me point out some key weaknesses in this argument.

A few days ago I mentioned how Kentucky congressional candidate Ben Chandler had endorsed Wes Clark and how Clark supporters were pointing to this as a sign of Howard Dean’s unpopularity in the South, or in this case, a border state.

Numerous readers wrote in to say that no Democratic presidential candidate was going to win Kentucky in any case, so the whole point was irrelevant. I agree that it is highly unlikely that any Democrat is going to win Kentucky next year. And even a successful Democrat would at best only pick off a few Southern states like, say, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida.

But there’s something key being missed by those who want to write off entirely how Democrats play in the South.

The most important of these is that there are large chunks of the South that are, to put it squarely, in the North. For instance, large portions of Ohio and Pennsylvania and Missouri – ‘Northern’ or ‘Midwestern’ states that Democrats must do well in in a presidential contest – are culturally very much in the South. Not South Carolina perhaps, but very much like Kentucky.

The devil is in the details as always but to a real extent if you write off the South, you’re actually writing off or risking writing off parts of the North without knowing it, parts Democrats must win.

More on this later.

Hard to know just what to make of this.

Early today an Icelandic TPM reader wrote in to tell me that Danish troops had found buried mortar rounds in southern Iraq just north of Basra which seemed to have traces of or been filled with mustard gas. The Danish or Icelandic links he sent me were a bit difficult for me to make sense of. So I thought I'd wait to see if it got picked up in the English language press.

This sort of munition was used extensively during the Iran-Iraq war. And according to the report they seemed to have been buried for at least ten years and thus likely left over from those hostilities.

The BBC has now picked up the story. But as of 5:30 PM on the east coast a quick look over the English language sites I check most often (CNN, MSNBC, the Times, the Post, Googleness, etc. ) none of them seem to have picked it up.

Needless to say, if confirmed this wouldn't change at all the question of 'whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction' since they seem to have been buried in a war zone in which it's well-known these weapons were used, and buried there in some small quantity at the time. Equally so, this wouldn't prevent yahoos from insisting on some sort of vindication. But there's not much you can do about yahoos or rhetorical hooligans but keep your own head on straight and let them chatter.

In any case, it'll be interesting to see what the story with these shells ends up being. Just before posting I noticed that several English wires services have now reported on it.

This LA Times has an Iowa poll with Dean 30%, Gephardt 23% and Kerry 18%. More interesting is the detailed analysis by Ron Brownstein of the stark demographic differences between the Dean and Gephardt voters.

According to this AP story, Research 2000 did a New Hampshire poll from the 6th through the 8th and got Dean 34%, Clark 14% and Kerry 13%. I don't see any mention of it on the Research 2000 or the Concord Monitor websites. But presumably they'll post something soon.